Oil tanker operator, captain and chief engineer admit to environmental crimes in federal court
Galissas arrived off Newport without a working safety system to prevent explosion onboard
The Galissas is shown in April 2022 off Brunsbüttel, Germany, a month after departing Rhode Island. (Photo by Michael Brakhage used with permission)
The Greek company that owned an oil tanker that entered Rhode Island waters last year without a crucial safety system to guard against an explosion onboard was fined $2.25 million after pleading guilty Monday in U.S. District Court in Providence to federal environmental crimes carried out by the captain and chief engineer.
The tanker Galissas was carrying 333,670 barrels of diesel oil en route from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, to Providence in February 2022, with 25 crew members. Sailing under the flag of Panama, the ship has a Z on its smokestack, which stands for owner/operator Zeus Lines Management S.A.
An investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard Southeastern New England Sector and the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service found the inert gas system of the Galissas was inoperable when the tanker arrived in Rhode Island on Feb. 19, 2022. Inert gas contains very little oxygen to suppress the combustion of flammable hydrocarbon gasses. An oil tanker’s inert gas system is necessary to ensure that oxygen levels within the vessel’s cargo tanks stay at safe levels.
“The potential could have been bad. I think ‘catastrophic’ could have been a good word,” said Cmdr. Mason Wilcox, chief of inspections and investigations for the First Coast Guard District in Boston. Wilcox said he had not encountered a case like this one in his 18 years in the Coast Guard.
The investigation also found that in addition to failing to report a hazardous condition on board, the captain and chief engineer maintained false and incomplete records of discharging oily bilge into the ocean.
The Galissas spent a few weeks in the area as a result of the investigation. The Z on its smokestack prompted speculation on social media that it might be a Russian vessel. The tanker was photographed in March anchored north of the Pell Bridge off the U.S. Naval War College. The city of Newport logged several inquiries about the tanker between March 13 and 16, 2022, according to city spokesman Thomas Shevlin.
During court proceedings, Zeus admitted violating The Ports and Waterways Safety Act and The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships. The Galissas’ captain, Jose Ervin Mahinge Porquez, a resident of the Philippines, admitted to violating The Ports and Waterways Safety Act. The Galissas’ Chief Engineer Roberto Cayabyab Penaflor, also a resident of the Philippines, admitted violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships.
Galissas crew members became aware that the vessel’s inert gas system was inoperable while conducting cargo operations in Rotterdam, according to information presented in court. But rather than remaining there until the inert gas system could be repaired, Zeus and Porquez opted to instead sail to the United States, where a spare part would be delivered upon the tanker’s arrival.
The potential could have been bad. I think 'catastrophic' could have been a good word.
– Cmdr. Mason Wilcox, chief of inspections and investigations for the First Coast Guard District in Boston
On Feb. 11, 2022, while crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Porquez submitted a Notice of Arrival to the U.S. Coast Guard. The notice failed to report that the inert gas system was inoperable. On Feb. 15, 2022, the Coast Guard sent an email in preparation for inspection which inquired about the vessel’s inert gas system. Porquez responded to the email but did not disclose the hazardous condition
After arriving off Newport on Feb. 19, 2022, Galissas crew embarked a local ship’s pilot to sail the vessel closer to shore and take delivery of the spare part. The crew installed the spare part, but the inert gas system remained inoperable. Porquez failed to report to the Coast Guard the hazardous condition that the vessel’s inert gas system was inoperable while the tanks were not gas free. The next day, the Coast Guard measured the oxygen levels within the vessel’s cargo tanks and found levels ranged between 15 and 17%, well beyond the maximum allowable 8%. The Coast Guard then ordered the vessel to move further offshore so as to not endanger the port of Newport.
Porquez kept a logbook that indicated the 600-foot vessel’s cargo tanks were at safe oxygen levels when it left the Netherlands and remained at safe levels for most of the Atlantic transit. In reality, investigators said the crew took no readings of the oxygen levels in the cargo tanks during the voyage. Porquez tasked the vessel’s chief officer with creating this fraudulent logbook that was then presented to the U.S. Coast Guard during its inspection.
Coast Guard investigators also found that on three separate occasions when Penaflor ordered crew members working in the engine room to discharge a total of approximately 9,544 gallons of oily bilge water from the vessel’s bilge holding tank directly into the ocean. Penaflor ordered the crew to use the vessel’s emergency fire pump, bypassing the vessel’s required pollution prevention equipment, to carry out the illegal discharges between Nov. 2021 and Feb. 2022.
Before the U.S. Coast Guard’s inspection of the Galissas, Penaflor repeatedly told crew members not to tell the Coast Guard about the illegal discharges.
Under the terms of a plea agreement, Zeus will pay a fine of $1,687,500 and a community service payment of $562,500. The community service payment will go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund projects to benefit marine and coastal natural resources in the state of Rhode Island. Zeus will also serve a four-year term of probation, during which any vessels operated by the company and calling on U.S. ports will be required to implement a robust environmental compliance plan.
The defendants are scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 8.
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